LONDON -- Hello from London, where I have come to take part in a media and technology conference sponsored by the Guardian.
Any time I'm in London, I always feel a bit nostalgic, having gone to college, started my career, and fallen head over heels in love here -- but never more nostalgic than during my breakfast at the flat of Lord George Weidenfeld, the legendary British publisher. He was the person responsible for turning my career around when he commissioned me to write a biography of Maria Callas. My previous book, After Reason, a rather chewy piece of political analysis I wrote in my mid-20s, was collecting dust on bookstore shelves when George took me aside and said: "If you are going to write books that have an impact, you are going to have to learn to tell a good story. Writing a biography is a way to learn to do that."
Arriving at his book-lined apartment overlooking the Thames, I was immediately transported back to dozens of evenings spent in that flat, attending George's famous dinners, which became my ongoing source of education after leaving Cambridge. I remembered learning about Middle East politics from Shimon Peres one night and about meaningful silences from Harold Pinter another night.
The apartment hasn't changed at all. And even though he's about to turn 90 (with a party for 400 of his closest friends planned for September in Lausanne), neither has George. Within five minutes of sitting down, he was referencing Voltaire and Madame de Stael, and peppering the conversation with French, German, and Latin phrases. And yet it never feels like an affectation because it comes so naturally to him. His interests have always been global -- and he is as familiar with political happenings in Russia, Germany, and Israel as he is with those in England and America.
When I asked for his take on Obama, he smiled: "He is a crusader without a cross. He has every gift imaginable: brilliance, soaring rhetoric, impressive wife, adorable children... but every now and then you get the sense that the White House has become Crusaders, Inc. 'Press 1 to find out today's crusade.'"
As Britain has already moved into pre-election mode -- the election here could be called anytime between now and May 2010 -- Gordon Brown presented to the House of Commons on Monday his big crusade: getting out of the slump both he and Britain have been in and "Building Britain's Future."
When I met with him earlier in the week, I found him to be obsessed with the challenge of making sure that everyone in England is offered the chance to live up to his or her potential beyond the reality TV idea of "making it big." Britain's Got Talent is a big hit, but Brown was talking about, as he told me, "making sure young people realize their talent as engineers, doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs, despite whatever adversity they have to overcome."
Brown clearly has had to overcome a lot, including losing one eye playing rugby at age 16 -- something that would have been a much bigger part of his biography if he were an American politician. But it is barely mentioned here. The question of young people and their potential has been in the news here this week as, according to a government report published on Tuesday, one million people 16-to-24 will be without a job or place in college this summer because of the recession. They even have a name for them: "Neets" -- Not in Education, Employment, or Training.
Even before these record high numbers, this has been a preoccupation of Brown's -- philosophical as well as practical. He even got in touch with the former poet laureate, Sir Andrew Motion, to ask if there were any contemporary poems that, like Thomas Gray's famous English poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," reflect on "talent wasted, potential unfulfilled, and opportunities forgone." Motion told him there weren't.
Even Brown's harshest critics acknowledge his moral seriousness and intellectual prowess. When the conversation turned to re-inventing capitalism after the global economic meltdown, he pointed out that Adam Smith, who was born in the same town in Scotland that Brown comes from, was very aware of the need for a moral foundation in order for free markets to work. "Adam Smith's father was a customs official and he was very conscious of the advantages of free trade," Brown pointed out. "But, at the same time, he also knew that the mercantile class couldn't be allowed to dominate at the expense of everybody else. So Smith has been unfairly appropriated by the market fundamentalists."
Indeed, Adam Smith once wrote: "When the regulation, therefore, is in support of the workman, it is always just and equitable, but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters."
Brown is very conscious of the power of new media to affect not only domestic politics, but also foreign policy. "Foreign policy," he told me, "used to be the province of the elites. No more. The coverage of the Iran uprising, and people's engagement in it all around the world, will affect the way governments deal with the Iranian regime. In the Philippines, you had the 'coup de text' that got tens of thousands of people organized and ended up forcing President Estrada from office in 2001. And, in Burma, the Internet has been critical in keeping public awareness on the fate of Aung San Suu Kyi."
Suu Kyi's 64th birthday was June 19, and Brown urged for her release and promised that the European Union would "step up sanctions and take further targeted measures against the Burmese regime."
Talk of new media and the Internet led to a charming moment when I was introduced to Brown's five-year-old son, John. When prompted to talk about computers, John explained how much he enjoys spending time on "the Labour site." "Wow, the Labour site?!" I asked. "The Lego site," he corrected me. "The Lego site!" What was it his father was saying about "Building Britain's Future"?
I met another young crowd tuned into the Internet (though slightly older than John Brown) when I was invited to dinner at the home of George and Frances Osborne. George Osborne is the Shadow Chancellor and ran David Cameron's campaign for leadership of the Tory Party (so, if the Tories win in the next election, Osborne will become the equivalent of our Treasury Secretary).
Frances Osborne is a bestselling author (and HuffPost blogger), whose last book, The Bolter, is about her grandmother Idina Sackville, who scandalized 1920s society. It got great reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.
Dinner was served in a large, open kitchen/dining room with signs of the Osbornes' two young children everywhere. The guests were a mixture of journalists (mostly friends from George and Frances' Oxford days) and Tory Party colleagues, including the Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Michael Gove, whom George Weidenfeld described as the Tory shadow cabinet's reigning intellectual.
"Tell me you didn't do the cooking too," I told Frances. "No, I just ordered it and arranged it!" she replied. I was relieved!
Talking to Rohan Silva, an economic adviser to Osborne who is not yet 30, I was struck by how Internet savvy the loyal opposition is. Silva, a former civil servant who switched over to the Tory side, described some of their plans: publishing all procurement contracts online; posting every item of government spending over £25,000; crowdsourcing crime fighting by publishing crime data that can be mapped and analyzed by the public; using open source IT in government computer systems to save £600 million a year; and posting hospital performance data, school performance data and road traffic information.
Silva was headed to Silicon Valley to meet with different people from the tech world, including Craig Newmark. Steve Hilton, the marketing guru set to run the Cameron campaign, is already there, having moved to America last summer when his wife, Rachel Whetstone, became Google's vice president of public policy and communications.
I asked Osborne if they were planning to have their campaign run from Palo Alto but he assured me that Google had agreed to let Whetstone work out of London, and the couple would be moving back. He also assured me that Hilton was "a cuddly Karl Rove." Isn't that an oxymoron?
The following night I ended up debating one of the other guests, Anne McElvoy, a columnist at the Weekly Standard, on Newsnight, when Jeremy Paxman interviewed us about the media's coverage of Iran. Well, it was hardly a debate as we both agreed that setting new media against old media has become really obsolete. Preceding us on the show was Michael Gove, debating his Labour Party counterpart on education. And the next day, Anne took on everyone (including Gove and Osborne -- and Brown for that matter) in her column in the Evening Standard, "The Campaign Has Begun -- With a Slanging Match."
At a lunch hosted by Lynn and Evelyn de Rothschild at their beautiful home, which used to be the studio of John Singer Sargent (no wonder the lighting was so extraordinary), Sarah Brown, the Prime Minister's wife, was talking about her work with the White Ribbon Alliance, which is dedicated to improving maternal health around the world.
No matter what they think of her husband, everyone in England loves Sarah. Talking about her life at Downing Street, she echoed the sentiments of President Obama when she described how great it was "living over the shop." "His aides will tell Gordon he has 20 minutes between two meetings and he will duck upstairs for bath time or to help tuck the kids into bed," she told me.
My final lunch before leaving London was hosted by Princess Michael of Kent at Kensington Palace. I was joined by Lyn Lear and her 15-year-old daughter Brianna who is going to Oxford for summer camp. Also there was the Princess' soon-to-be-daughter-in-law, Sophie Winkleman, who is both a double first from Cambridge and an actress. On September 12th, she will marry Lord Frederick Windsor at the Chapel Royal on Hampton Court. And on September 14th, she will be in Los Angeles to start filming a new NBC comedy series called 100 Questions, centered on a online dating service, soulmates.com. That will be quite an unusual royal honeymoon. I told her that "Sophie Windsor" would look good in the credits, but she's sticking with Winkleman.
My time in London wrapped up with a panel at the Guardian conference. The unambitious theme: Using the power of information and technology to confront and defeat the global challenges of our age.
One of my fellow panelists was Nick Bostrom, Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, who describes himself as a "failed stand-up comedian." Even though his speech focused on the possibility of using our technological powers "not only to change the world but also to change ourselves by enhancing some of our basic biological capacities," I fixated on the chart he put up showing how many millions have died through the ages because of either "bad germs or bad men."
In fact, I think this chart could be a great therapeutic tool that puts all our little daily problems into sharp perspective. Indeed, I'm planning to laminate it and put it on my desk.